Part One of a Three-Part Series

Well-known author Philip Yancey presents his position regarding alcoholics and the recovery movement in “Lessons from Rock Bottom” (Christianity Today, Vol. 44, No. 8).

Natural Theologies

Yancey begins his article by saying, “In earlier times, some theologians wrote ‘natural theologies’ by first explicating the wonders of nature and then gradually moving toward theism, revelation, and Christian doctrine.” His first point, regarding theologians writing “natural theologies” starting with nature and then “gradually moving toward . . . Christian doctrine,” is a weak foundation on which to rest. Any form of natural theology is severely weakened and distorted by the noetic effects of the fall.

Yancey says, “If I were writing a natural theology today, I think I would start with recovering alcoholics.” Thus Yancey builds on this faulty foundation of natural theology by equating fallen, sinful man (“recovering alcoholics”) to “the wonders of nature.” The “recovering alcoholics,” as well as all fallen men, are severely limited by the unsearchable depths of man and the inability of fallen man to accurately know himself without the confusing intrusion of sinful biases.

We who trust the Bible as sufficient for life and godliness say that the Bible is the sole authoritative source of understanding the human condition, including values, and the sole authoritative source of prescribing how one is to live. None of the humanly derived observations or strategies of “recovering alcoholics” or others can ever be regarded as possessing certainty or authority equal to that of Scripture.

God in His common grace does allow unbelievers to investigate His universe and discover physical laws, but such discoveries do not deserve the title “revelation,” nor are they worthy of the measure of certainty with which men ought to regard a word directly from God (which is precisely what all true revelation is). Further, there is a huge difference between understanding aerodynamics, for instance, and knowing the complexities of the human soul. While superficialities can be observed about mankind, the depths of human nature elude scientific investigation and morality is beyond its comprehension. Natural reason can draw some conclusions from observation, but these again are at the superficial level and subject to human distortion. Anything beyond the superficial ends up being speculation and opinion.

Scripture is clear about who is able to know and understand the inner man. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” (Jer. 17:9). Knowing the inner workings of the human heart, soul, mind, and spirit is God’s domain. Because He is the primary Person molding each of His children who have been born again by His Spirit, this is His prerogative to know and to reveal.

Just as natural theology does not show the way of salvation, natural theology cannot give any information about the new life in Christ or about sanctification or Christian growth. At best, “recovering alcoholics” and organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous are limited to helping the old nature or flesh. They cannot touch the “new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:24). Scripture is clear about fallen men having their “understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Eph. 4:18). Therefore it is pointless for Christians to attempt to improve their psyche (soul) through Alcoholics Anonymous or to look to the “recovering alcoholics” for how to live. The wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous is the very wisdom of men about which God warns: “That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5).

When one considers all the admonitions in Scripture regarding foolish speculations, why would God give special insights regarding the innermost mysteries of the soul to recovering alcoholics like the founders of AA? Paul clearly presents God’s position regarding the wisdom of men:

For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? . . . Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. . . . But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. . . . That no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:19, 20, 25, 27, 29, 30).

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:14-16).

Paul further warned the Colossians: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col 2:8).

Spiritual Program Begun by Christians?

Yancey refers to a “spiritual program” and “a couple of Christian alcoholics.” He says, “It staggers me that psychiatrists, pharmacologists, and scientific reductionists cannot improve on a spiritual program devised by a couple of Christian alcoholics 60 years ago.” The “spiritual program” to which he refers is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and the “couple of Christian alcoholics” were Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, the cofounders. Yancey believes that while many have tried, they “cannot improve on” the AA program.

The Effectiveness of AA

The so-called effectiveness of AA comes through personal testimonies and anecdotal stories. And of course such testimonies leave out the many failures of the movement.

In a book about treatment of addictive behaviors, William Miller and Reid Hester present a chapter titled “The Effectiveness of Alcoholism Treatment: What Research Reveals.” They say:

In spite of the fact that it inspires nearly universal acclaim and enthusiasm among alcoholism treatment personnel in the United States, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) wholly lacks experimental support for its efficacy.1

They first refer to some studies on AA that “yield results that are virtually uninterpretable.” Then they say:

Only two studies have employed random assignment and adequate controls to compare the efficacy of AA versus no intervention or alternative interventions. Brandsma et al (1980) found no differences at 12-month follow-up between AA and no treatment, and at 3-month follow-up those assigned to AA were found to be significantly more likely to be binge drinking, relative to controls or those assigned to other interventions (based on unverified self-reports). Ditman and Crawford (1966) assigned court mandated “alcohol addicts” to AA, clinic treatment, or no treatment (probation only). Based on records of rearrest, 31% of AA clients and 32% of clinic-treated clients were judged successful, as compared with 44% success in the untreated group (Ditman, Crawford, Forgy, Moskowitz, & MacAndrew, 1967).(Emphasis theirs.)

They also refer to other studies evaluating multidimensional programs that reveal no advantage for AA. They mention one study comparing a “complex treatment program (including AA, medication, outpatient, and inpatient care)” with “a single session of counseling consisting of feedback and advice.” A twelve-month follow-up revealed that the complex program with AA “was no more effective in modifying alcohol consumption and problems” than the single counseling session with advice.3

This is their concluding statement concerning AA:

To be sure, these studies (like most any research) can be criticized for methodological weaknesses, and as always “further research is needed.” Given the absence of a single controlled evaluation supporting the effectiveness of AA and the presence of these negative findings, however, we must conclude that at the present time the alleged effectiveness of AA remains unproved.4 (Emphasis added.)

Dr. Stanton Peele, health researcher at Mathematica Policy Research and author of Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of Control, says:

Several studies have shown that those who quit drinking via AA actually have higher relapse rates than those who quit on their own.5 (Emphasis added.)

The Harvard Mental Health Letter has a special report on alcoholism, which says:

Because alcoholism, like all addictions, is a disorder of motivation, a full commitment to change is not only a cause of recovery but often the largest part of recovery itself. In a sense, all addiction treatments are ways of improving motivation. . . .

After the treatments are described, what everyone wants to be told is which ones are most effective. The short answer, unfortunately, is that no one knows. . . .

The National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse sponsored a nationwide study called Project Match in an attempt to answer this crucial question. The experiment, which lasted eight years and recruited more than 1,600 patients, was one of the largest clinical studies ever conducted. One-third of the participants were given a session of cognitive-behavioral therapy once a week for three months. One-third received 12-step facilitation (to prepare them for AA), also one session a week for three months. The last group received motivational enhancement therapy in four sessions over a three-month period. . . .

Controversy is sure to continue, but one implication of Project Match is that for many alcoholics, brief treatments are just as good as lengthier ones.6

The Harvard Mental Health Letter, in response to the question of which treatments are most effective, answers, “no one knows.” This is in contrast to Yancey’s statement that AA cannot be improved on.

(To be continued.)

PAL V9N3 (May-June 2001)

1William Miller and Reid Hester, “The Effectiveness of Alcoholism Treatment: What Research Reveals.” Treating Addictive Behaviors: Processes of Change. W. R. Miller and N. Heather, Eds. New York: Plenum Press, 1986, p. 135.
2Ibid., p. 136.
5Stanton Peele, “Mr. Peele Responds.” Reason, May 1990, p. 12.
The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Vol. 16, No. 12, pp. 1-4